For almost 40 years, since the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, the Supreme Court has treated limits on campaign contributions to candidates, parties and committees more permissibly than limits on independent campaign spending when challenged on First Amendment grounds. As to contribution limits, the court’s “standard of review” has been rather lax, and most contribution limits are upheld. Spending limits are subject to “strict scrutiny,” and courts usually strike them down. Senator Mitch McConnell wants the Supreme Court in McCutcheon v. F.E.C. to overturn part of Buckley and to apply that strict standard to review of contribution limits, meaning most of them would fall too. It’s a bad idea. The closer the money comes to the hands of members of Congress, the greater the danger of corruption and undue influence of big donors.
Individuals already can give more than $5,000 to federal candidates, and more to parties and committees coordinating with candidates. Further, with Super-PACs like Priorities USA Action, and nondisclosing 501(c)(4) groups like Crossroads GPS, individuals have ample opportunity to pool their money to participate in elections. The courts and the Federal Election Commission have determined that the First Amendment prevents limiting contributions to these independent groups. Keeping reasonable limits on direct contributions to candidates in place does not squelch a lot of First Amendment activity.